Traces of the Old, Uses of the New: The Emergence of Digital Literary Studies

Traces of the Old, Uses of the New: The Emergence of Digital Literary Studies

by Amy E. Earhart


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ISBN-13: 9780472052783
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 10/30/2015
Series: Editorial Theory and Literary Criticism Series
Pages: 172
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Amy E. Earhart is Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University.

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Traces of the Old, Uses of the New

The Emergence of Digital Literary Studies

By Amy E. Earhart

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2015 Amy E. Earhart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-07278-1


The Rationale of Holism

Textual Studies, the Edition, and the Legacy of the Text Entire

For two millennia, the principal storage mechanism for the world's intellectual memory took the form of manuscript and printed books. These days, students and scholars have available to them a rapidly growing influx of digitized material, and the internet offers enormous possibilities for increasing the use of scanned older materials by making them more broadly available than would ever have been possible in a print environment. But we cannot provide posterity with an electronic copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and, by so doing, absolve ourselves of the responsibility for preserving copies of the original, early, printed editions of Whitman's book and the manuscripts that lie behind them. We have no right to deprive the future of the past.

— Pamphlet, Rare Book School, the University of Virginia, 2009

Digital editions are some of the most visible early digital projects in digital literary studies, so predominant that one might argue that the digital edition is the primary form of the first generation of the field. For the purposes of this study, digital editions are those projects that meet the MLA "Guidelines for Editors of Scholarly Editions," and, as such, present a reliable text established by accuracy, adequacy, appropriateness, consistency, and explicitness. Emerging from textual studies, such "work explores the ideological structures and material processes that shape the transmission, reception, production, and interpretation of texts." By probing the combative field of American textual studies in the 1990s, this chapter will reveal the roots of practices that are now accepted as standard in digital literary studies, such as the focus on digital editing and widely accepted models of form and layout of digital materials. These representations emerged out of what I call a "whole text" approach, a cohesive print-to-digital model that features interrelated textual materials, often in print book form, rather than an expansive and fragmented representation of text, as is increasingly the case with data-based deformations. The digital edition privileges the structure of the book, which is viewed as a self-contained entity with a naturalized means of displaying knowledge and is replicated in most aspects of digital edition creation, from display to the treatment of data. The replication of print in a digital form is designed to increase access to materials and aid examination of aspects of the original (illustrations, typography, etc.) that is rarely possible in modern reprints. While there is no doubt that such materials are beneficial to scholars, the early period of digital editions did not provide proof for the claim that digitization allows scholars to ask and answer questions in new ways, one crucial argument for the support of digital literary studies. In addition to this limitation, our textual studies roots brought the unfortunate marginalized status of editing to the greater digital literary studies, reinforcing an outsider position for our work that scholars continue to battle, and reinforcement of a traditional canon.

It is not an accident that textual studies scholars were intrigued with the digital in the early 1990s. Literary editorial scholarship was in upheaval. Conflict within — authorial intent versus the social construction of the text — and without — the devaluation of editorial work by the larger discipline — made the field extremely unstable. As editors began to search for a way to create a better edition and to reinsert editing into the core of literary studies, they began to consider digital technologies as a possible helpmate. This chapter is not intended to serve as a history of scholarly editing but to reveal how the history of scholarly editing has impacted the way that digital literary studies represents texts and to demonstrate that the conflict within textual studies approaches has, in some ways, seeded contemporary tensions regarding digital texts.

1951 marked the beginnings of the rationale papers, the essays that textual scholars wrote to advocate varying practices in the field. The 1951 "Rationale of Copy-Text" by W. W. Greg launched what came to be known as the Greg-Bowers model, "the dominant mode of Anglo-American textual criticism, institutionally and academically" and which dominated the field until challenged in the 1980s. Greetham describes this school as "the copy-text school of eclectic editing designed to produce a reading clear-text whose features were a fulfillment of authorial intentions by the selection of authorially sanctioned substantive variants from different states of texts, and whose copy-text was selected on the basis of its accidentals being as close as possible to authorial usage." The emphasis on the idealized and preexisting authorially sanctioned texts, the "Work," to use Tanselle's term, was premised on the belief that "[t]hose texts, being reports of works, must always be suspect; and, no matter how many of them we have, we never have enough information to know with certainty what the works consist of." This approach situates textual studies as separate, "anterior to literary criticism," and "the scholar's first job" according to the first edition of An Introduction to Bibliographical and Textual Studies. G. Thomas Tanselle took up the mantle of defending this version of textual studies, arguing that

the textual way of thinking — adjudicates between the competing claims of a basic dilemma: the feeling, on the one hand, that all artifacts, by their survival, deserve our respect, either because they put us in touch with what has gone before or because we feel a social obligation to pass along intact what we have received; and, on the other, the realization that they may fail to represent, for a variety of reasons, what their producers intended or what we feel we need, and that without correction or repair they may be misleading guides to the past, and without innovative change they may seem unsatisfying.

To Tanselle, "Such editing sought to establish a fixed, definitive text, usually theorized as an ur-text marred by subsequent corruption in transmission." The concern regarding the displacement of work within the editing process would figure predominantly in concerns about digital reproductions of literature, most often a fear of loss of editorial control that will be discussed later in this chapter.

Those scholars invested in Greg-Bowers editorial practices would also feel threatened by the displacement of editing within the American academy. While textual studies work was considered a central aspect of literary studies during the early to mid-century, by the 1990s deconstruction and high literary criticism had driven textual studies to the borders of the field. Post-structuralists rejected the materiality of the text that those invested in editorial work relished, broadening the concept of text to a definition far more amorphous than that embraced by those in the Greg-Bowers camp. Theorists such as Derrida refused the physical constraints attached to text, arguing for "a 'text' that is henceforth no longer a finished corpus of writing, some content enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces." In response to Harold Bloom's similarly stated comment that "there are no texts ... but only interpretations," Thomas Tanselle responded, "he is obviously equating 'texts' with 'works' and asserting that works have no meanings independent of the interpretations of those who encounter them." Such statements as those made by Bloom and Derrida attacked core values of those who embraced the Greg-Bowers editorial approach, with Tanselle noting:

In recent years there has been an increasing tendency for literary critics to refer to literary works as "texts." In consequence, the term "textual criticism" has become ambiguous, some people regarding it as a synonym for "literary criticism." Traditionally, of course, "textual criticism" has meant the scholarly activity of studying the textual histories of verbal works in an effort to propose reliable texts of those works (according to one or another definition of correctness).

Articles published in textual studies journals, "Textual and Literary Theory: Redrawing the Matrix" by D.C. Greetham, "Textual Criticism and Deconstruction" by G. Thomas Tanselle, and "Text as Matter, Concept, and Action" by Peter L. Shillingsburg, highlight the conflict. In Greetham's words, textual scholars took "on post-structuralists in a direct struggle for the body of the text." The tension between criticism and textual studies has not dissolved and the legacy of that tension had a lasting impact on the development of digital humanities within the American academy.

The centrality of the digital edition form has intimately connected digital literary studies to traditional textual studies approaches in the minds of many critics, in turn replicating splits between textual studies and literary criticism. The rejection of textual studies by literary criticism has been discussed in great detail within textual studies, but there has been little consideration of the duplication of such splits within digital humanities because of the roots of textual studies. In part, the rejection of digital literary studies has occurred because of the legacy of associating edition building with mechanical, applied work, leading to the charge of uncomplicated, simplistic, and mechanistic digital literary studies work. Michael Groden sums up the original textual studies/literary criticism divide: "Literary theorists and critics have tended to see editing and bibliography as activities that are preliminary to criticism and the textual theorists and critics themselves as concerned only with empirical evidence, often with minute details (commas, watermarks)." In his notorious "The Fruits of the MLA," Edmund Wilson argues that textual editors have monopolized and suppressed the pleasure of literature and dampened the impact of literature across the wider culture. The charge of overt technicality and devotion to minutia at the exclusion of literary pleasure is similar to critiques of digital editing. In Ian Small's understanding of a digital editor, "he or she must cease to edit, in the sense of exercising any form of control or judgment. The postmodernist hypertext editor apparently needs only to supply data; he or she need not order it." Small continues by representing the editor as powerless: "In the process, though, that editor appears also to have been stripped of any effective agency, authority, or responsibility ... The logic of such a move would be to de-skill and demote the very individuals, text-editors and text-theorists, whose interests it is supposed to promote." The charges against digital editing are long standing, nearly engrained in contemporary critical approaches, which views editing, whether print or digital, as a return to conservative critical approaches to literature. Leroy F. Searle points out that "[f]or an earlier generation, the vocation of editorial scholarship often seemed a haven (if not the very citadel) of intellectual probity, in which one could practice a science — mild and respectful, if sometimes dull — without being drawn into the relatively unregulated life of literary criticism and theory, where, as I.A. Richards remarked after a lifetime of experience with it, 'an indecent disregard of fact is still current form.'" The argument voiced by Searle is part of a contiguous arc, where the history of textual studies work has strongly influenced the way in which digital humanities has become understood.

Further, the displacement of editing and the impact on digital humanities has happened within a particularized national context that has adversely impacted American work in digital editing. Scholars including Hans Gabler, G. Thomas Tanselle, and Jerome McGann are quick to point out that the treatment and trajectory of the field differs greatly by nationality. Robert Hume, in "The Aims and Uses of 'Textual Studies,'" notes that textual studies has reached a "... low standing ... in North American English departments ... Few major institutions emphasize editing or bibliographic scholarship, and bright students are rarely encouraged to take up these lines of work. The bibliography/literary criticism dichotomy has become a chasm over the last twenty or thirty years, with critics increasingly neglectful and even contemptuous of bibliographic scholarship." The lack of standing in North American departments, where textual studies work is often considered "just editing" by those invested in literary criticism, is not so in the European academy where textual studies continues to hold an important position within academia. Perhaps this is because, as Hume notes, Anglo-American editing is distinctly different than European editing, where "literary editing has rarely been carried out with much respect for the Greg-Bowers program." Hans Gabler likewise points to the "dichotomy between criticism and scholarship," which he argues is "an American division ... in the first place; responsible, I believe for much in the present modern topography of the academic landscape in English, American, and modern languages and literatures; and never whole-heartedly embraced as a mode of self-definition in literary studies in Europe." The digital turn has done little to bring European and American attitudes toward textual studies work together. Europeans have produced a far greater number of digitaleditions and the form continues to have a great deal of currency. Though digital editions are currently produced in the United States, the position of editing within the American academy has meant that those working on such projects continue to find their work stigmatized.

However, the impact of editorial displacement from the mainstream American academy is not equally distributed. The dominance of the Greg-Bowers approach was contested by those who championed a reevaluation of the theoretical framework of textual studies, such as Jerome McGann, D. F. McKenzie, and David Greetham. McGann took on the Greg-Bowers school's approach to editing in the early 1980s after his experience with editing Byron. In his 1983 Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, McGann challenged those that privileged the position of author in the text, arguing that such ideas "so emphasize the autonomy of the isolated author as to distort our theoretical grasp of the 'mode of existence of a literary work of art' (a mode of existence which is fundamentally social rather than personal)." Designed to represent a production process rather than individual moment of creation, the social text criticism proposed by McGann is described by Greetham as "an alternative view of composition, in which the entire history of the work is a fit subject for textual scholarship, and even posthumous changes by editors, publishers, friends and relations, are to be considered a perfectly valid part of the text read as a social construct." McGann's challenge to the Greg-Bowers approach generated not only a great deal of tension within the field but would lay the groundwork for the move from digital edition to digital archive that will be discussed in the next chapter.

During the height of digital editing, editors invested in producing high quality scholarly editions were increasingly concerned about the future of edition production. Regardless of how the scholar viewed his or her school of editing, limitations of print technologies and the economics of scholarly publication increasingly constrained textual and bibliographical scholarship. Peter Shillingsburg provides a useful analysis of issues of length, completeness, and the economics of scholarly publication in a 1996 article:

A scholarly edition is a thick book (five hundred to a thousand pages) printed on acid-free paper guaranteed for 350 years, in sturdy bindings, with a list of ten to twenty editors and advisory editors, published by a reputable academic press and costing a minimum of fifty dollars, but more often over one hundred. It contains a Pure Virgin Text or, unironically, a Fully Restored one. Already a thick tome because of the historical and textual introductions and textual apparatus, scholarly editions frequently exclude explanatory annotations because the space they require would add unduly to the cost (already out of the reach of ordinary mortals and nearly out of reach for the ordinary research library).


Excerpted from Traces of the Old, Uses of the New by Amy E. Earhart. Copyright © 2015 Amy E. Earhart. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Digital Literary Studies in the United States,
One: The Rationale of Holism: Textual Studies, the Edition, and the Legacy of the Text Entire,
Two: The Era of the Archive: The New Historicist Movement and Digital Literary Studies,
Three: What's In and What's Out?: Digital Canon Cautions,
Four: Data and the Fragmented Text: Tools, Visualization, and Datamining or Is Bigger Better?,
Five: Notes on the Future of Digital Literary Studies,

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